It’s been a while now since I finished writing One Time on Earth – the story of a young man’s obsession with the first moon landing, and enough water has passed beneath the bridge for me to sit down with the lead character, Henry Lothian, to chew the fat over some of the things I put him through in that story. So, we shared a quiet moment and had a Q & A session where we revisited some of the things on and off those pages. Here’s what happened.
HL: You didn’t make me out as the most likeable character in the world. What was the reason for that?
NN: Well that’s how you are. Your background’s grim, you live in a rundown part of town, the slums are being cleared, your parents have their attention elsewhere, especially your father, you go to a Grammar school, which is out of kilter with where you’ve grown up and your world is on the verge of being torn apart; so to have you as a squeaky clean kid would have made the story twee. And I didn’t want that.
HL: Am I you?
NN: Hell, no; although, I can see the similarities. When I was very young, younger than you are in the story, I lived in a rundown part of Leeds, so we share a similar background in that respect. I was awestruck by Apollo as well, but so was everyone else my age. You have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Apollo and space stuff. I had nothing like that. I was just swept up by it because of the adventure.
HL: Whose future do you think we got in the end?
NN: I think I know what you mean by that.
HL: Do you?
NN: Hmm. Well, in the story you think that there’s a golden future coming because of Apollo, but there’s one character, one you’re often at loggerheads with, who thinks otherwise and claims he’s seen the real one – says it’s going to be, ‘grubby and pointless, without hope or direction,’ or something like that anyhow. So, which future did we get? It is a good question. We certainly didn’t get the future you predicted, Henry; although I do live in hope.
HL: So why did you portray my father as such an arse?
NN: I don’t think he is, deep down. I think his back’s to the wall and he’s trying to save his pub while houses in the neighbourhood are torn down and all hell is breaking loose everywhere else. He’s under pressure; it’s not pretty and he’s taking things badly. He represents the male view of the world back then. Plus I needed as many ways as possible to put you through the mangle.
HL: Thanks for that.
NN: But that’s the writer’s job. There has to be conflict. The reader has to associate with the characters in the story, certainly with the central character. They’ll never engage if everything is hunky dory. The readers want to know if the main character in the world you’ve created is going to overcome their difficulties.
HL: So, do all the characters I come across represent the views that people had back then?
NN: Too right, they do. You and one or two others represent the mind-set Apollo brought – that notion of inspiration, that idea that there’s nothing we can’t achieve while we’re able to mount expeditions to the moon, your sister flies a flag for the peace movement; social changes at the time and just about everything else in the world are given a kicking by your old feller. And Charlie, well he’s the story between the lines, really – the message that oh my God what have we squandered here.
HL: And my grandfather?
NN: Well, he’s the mellow and open-minded one; as grandparents often are. He’s a place where you find refuge, and also another way of ultimately bringing you more grief.
HL: What did you want to achieve with the story?
NN: I wanted to recreate that world. We forget what that world was like. It was nothing like the one I inhabit now and people don’t remember how remarkable that time was. For several months it was as though we were living in some kind of a dream as this event drew near. Today people often say, ‘Oh we can land a man on the moon, but we can’t get the trains to run on time.’ And that really annoys me; the truth is we can’t land a man on the moon today, in theory we know how to do it, but in reality we are incapable of mounting such an expedition. Forty–odd years ago we were able to do so, but not anymore.
HL: Sounds like you’re getting pretty steamed up there about this.
NN: Yes, I’m starting to sound like Charlie in the story. But it does annoy me when people speak in such a way. It riles me that they don’t even know we can’t land men on the moon today and that we’ve squandered such ability.
HL: And do you think that’s a dangerous thing?
NN: Well, you know the answer to that, Henry.
HL: Playing fast and loose with extinction?
NN: That’s almost like a line you would have used yourself in the book. Don’t you say something like, ‘Disperse or die, it’s the most obvious thing ever.’
HL: I did say that. I told that bird when we were sitting on that bench.
HL: Oh yeah, right. So, the landscape, does that represent anything in the story? You have me and the boys walking through plenty of it.
NN: Well I think you have to write about what you know about and I knew that terrain you often find yourself in, but if there’s any symbolism to the landscape, I think it represents your isolation, or at least it’s used to intensify your sense of isolation. More ways to make your life more difficult and to engage the reader.
HL: Have you ever been back to the landscape?
NN: Many times.
HL: And what do you think about it now?
NN: It’s funny I was in the Dales not long back, in Malhamdale and I must admit I did get a wistful feeling and I thought, ‘Yeah, Henry and the boys, they knocked about around here for a while. Went up that canyon, sat by that lake, yomped up that hill by those outcrops. Kind of nostalgic, it is.
HL: One last question.
NN: Go on then.
HL: Would you ever put me through the mangle again?
NN: Do you mean in another novel?
NN: Well, never say ‘never.’ It’s possible we could link up again, but not for a while. And I don’t think it would be back in 1969. And I don’t think you will have become an astronaut. That would be too obvious, but it would be interesting to have another adventure and maybe find out what happened to Henry Lothian.
Neil Newton is the author of One Time on Earth – the story of a young man’s obsession with the first moon landing. Click here to visit Neil’s blog.